In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section International Sanctions

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Effectiveness of Sanctions
  • Sanctions and Public International Law

International Law International Sanctions
Iain Cameron, Anton Moiseienko
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0220

Iain Cameron and Anton Moiseienko updated this article on May 26th, 2021. It was originally written by Iain Cameron, published on March 23rd, 2012. The original article can be found here.


No authoritative definition of a “sanction” exists in international law, yet the term is frequently used to describe unfriendly measures short of war, particularly those of economic nature. One commonly used definition is the “deliberate, government-inspired withdrawal or threat of withdrawal of customary trade or financial relations” (Hufbauer, et al. 2007, p. 3; cited under Effectiveness of Sanctions). Discussions of sanctions typically focus on economic sanctions, which involve prohibiting economic transactions with sanctioned persons. Reasons for the imposition of sanctions vary, and governments frequently target officials of unfriendly regimes or individuals suspected of involvement in crime or terrorism. Sanctions can also include export/import or investment restrictions and can be directed against a sector of the economy that is deemed to facilitate harmful behavior (e.g., arms industry or research related to weapons of mass destruction) or be a lucrative funding source (e.g., trade in high-value goods such as diamonds, oil or timber). Travel sanctions, which preclude sanctioned individuals from entering the sanctioning state, are also common. In contrast, the original form of international sanctions, i.e., embargo on the totality of trade with another country, is now rarely used due to its far-reaching humanitarian consequences. Purely diplomatic or political measures, such as breaking off diplomatic relations, are not normally viewed as “sanctions” in the sense discussed here; the same applies to military action. The characterization of international sanctions as being “between words and wars” is thus a helpful cliché (Wallensteen and Staibano 2005, cited under General Overviews). Conversations about international sanctions generally concern two sets of issues: their objectives and effectiveness on one side, and their legality and human rights impact on the other side. These are related in that sanctions are at their most potent when applied by powerful states or international organizations, and it is also then that the issues of accountability loom large. Some sanctions, particularly those against suspected terrorists, are adopted by the UN Security Council and are thus binding on all UN members. Others are enacted by individual states or the European Union (EU), a uniquely integrated regional organization with a common foreign policy. Sanctions taken outside the UN framework are known as “unilateral,” and the United States and EU are major economic powers that make active use of unilateral sanctions.

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